Donald Trump famously denounced climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese. Despite being confronted with scientific evidence revealing the damage we have caused our planet, he still pulled out of the Paris International Climate Agreement, and has taken steps to cut back on environmental funding and protection. This begs the question: what do we do as a society when evidential truth is called into question?
Photographs in the news have the immense power to shape people’s perceptions about politics, society, influential figures and climate change. A lot of the time, these photos simply function to reaffirm something we all already know: the refugee crisis is an inexorable humanitarian crisis that requires greater action; the popularity of wacky haute couture is both bemusing and yet, we all totally get it; and the Gilets Jaunes are as ferocious as ever. But often, photos remind us of matters that we perhaps haven’t chosen to actively acknowledge, or indeed have even purposefully relegated to the back of our minds. Climate change is the perfect example of this.
Environmental concerns – plastic waste, forest fires, rising sea levels, the unstoppable temperature climb, among so many others – are some of the most critical issues faced by humanity today. In fact, they have been for a while, but we have continuously, and mindlessly, chosen to overlook them. Now living in an age scientists have named the Anthropocene – a geological age “defined by nuclear tests, plastic pollution and domesticated chicken” – climate action is needed more than ever, and in recent years we have seen an overwhelming response by artists and journalists who are embarking on projects to raise awareness for this unstoppable crisis.
Photojournalism has adopted a central position in the discussion surrounding climate change. And its recent involvement in the discourse can only really be put down to the fact that, having ignored the issues for so long, it is now that the photographic evidence is shocking enough to actually cause a stir.
Let’s recall Justin Hofman’s disturbing photograph that captured the attention of world media: a seahorse clasping onto a cotton bud like it should seagrass. On Instagram, Hofman wrote: “This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans.” And an allegory it certainly is. It powerfully represents the omnipresence of plastic in our environment which is choking our oceans, irreversibly damaging our ecological systems, and disrupting our wildlife. It elicited a widespread response from news platforms and environmental activists around the world. But this photograph is just one of many that is causing commotion and forcing us to get our sh*t together.
In 2018, the British Journal of Photography announced ‘Fractured Stories’: a commission giving one photographer the opportunity to document issues of fracking in the UK. Rhiannon Adam, a London-based photographer, was chosen to embark upon this expedition to visually depict the effects of fracking on communities, shedding light on and re-opening a discussion about this contentious practice. Unlike other media, she refuses to sensationalise the issue, and she tapped into the essential crux of environmental photography: honesty. A genuine depiction of the crisis is necessary to truly elicit the desired response. And I think this is why Hofman’s photograph received the reaction that it did. He accidentally snorkeled across this unstaged scene; its sincerity makes it all the more desperate, and hopefully provocative.
Social media is a powerful tool to divulge environmental issues. Jack Harries is a documentary photographer, filmmaker and environmentalist who, after the success of a YouTube channel and blog, has utilised his platform, mainly on Instagram, to raise awareness surrounding climate change. He has launched a number of environmental projects, such as Somaliland’s Nomads: The Human Face of Climate Change, a portrait series of those who survived Somaliland’s drought and famine. Like Adam, Harries entered the communities of those who he was documenting, making this photo series a sort of ethnography and therefore maintaining the essential honesty at the heart of environmental photography.
Photography is a powerful artistic medium that transcends language and cultural barriers. Bruno Barbey, Moroccan war photographer, said, “Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” It has evolved into a visual language, and photojournalism has been a consistent provider of transparency in obscure climates. It is only through our understanding of world issues that we can truly begin to tackle them head-on, and photography gives us this understanding better than any other medium. It gives a story credibility, an invaluable credential in our era of Post-Truth and Fake News.
Images spark interest and capture attention, making photography an invaluable tool for documenting climate change, a global issue that is only over recent years making news headlines. Photos on this subject educate and inspire, and with every rise in world temperatures, sea levels and the amount of plastic in natural habitats, we are more in need of them every day. In a society crippled by division caused by fake news about very real world issues, art, and specifically photography, has a crucial role to play in uniting and educating society and encouraging an active response to the disasters caused by climate change.